Chronicle 2, Part 18: The State of the Game

White gets a surprise tip in October 1925 that a prisoner in McAlester Penitentiary—Burt Lawson—has information on the case. A former employee of Bill Smith’s, Burt quit his job when he learned Smith was carrying on with his wife. This job brought him into contact with Ernest and Bryan. A year or so later, Ernest asked Burt if he would be willing to kill Smith. When Lawson said no, Hale made the same request. Before Hale could ask again, Lawson was arrested for murder. Hale reached out saying he could make Lawson’s charges disappear. A deputy let Lawson out, and Lawson planted the bomb. He remembered hearing the vast explosion as he fled. On October 24, 1925, White telegraphed Hoover that he had broken the case.  

White and his team are eager to get the Burkhart brothers and Hale off the street as death threats continue. White is especially worried for Mollie, as well as for Comstock. Mollie has uncharacteristically stopped attending church. Luckily, though, her diabetes prevents her from drinking alcohol, which was often used to deliver poison to victims. But the insulin used to control her diabetes is not working, and Mollie gets sicker. Despite dangling loose ends, White has arrest warrants written, and the Burkharts and Hale are arrested in early January 1926. Hale remains sure of himself, leading White to conclude that Ernest is the weakest link in the conspiracy’s chain. 

White, Frank Smith, and Ernest spend hours in a claustrophobic interrogation room. Ernest occasionally seems to show remorse, but any mention of Hale changes his demeanor. Exhausted, the agents turn to Blackie Thompson, the man who previously embarrassed the Bureau. Thompson confesses that Ernest had asked him to murder Bill and Rita—and White has him do so again in Ernest’s presence. A few hours later, Ernest is ready to talk. 

Ernest lays out the whole enterprise, explaining that he followed his uncle in all decisions. He notes that Lawson lied about his role, that Asa Kirby blew up the house. Ernest also implicates John Ramsey in the Smith case and in Henry Roan’s murder. When Ramsey is presented with Ernest’s signed statement, he explains that Hale ordered him to do the killing. Ramsey justifies his actions stating that killing a Native American meant no more in the 1920s than it had in 1724. Ernest fingers bureau informant Kelsie Morrison as the third man in Anna’s case and as the one who had done the murder. 

White sends men to arrest Morrison and to check on Mollie. She is very ill, but as soon as she is no longer treated by the Shouns, her health improves. In interviews with the prosecutors, Mollie struggles to understand Ernest’s role in the conspiracy, stressing that she loves her husband. As he wraps up his investigation, White learns one more upsetting detail—Hale had an affair with Anna and was likely the father of her unborn child. But nothing ruffles Hale’s placid, even gleeful, demeanor. No matter the evidence, Hale remains sure he will win. 


​​​In this crucial chapter, White breaks the case by breaking Ernest Burkhart. Ironically, it is a lie that allows him to do so. As is so often across the case, White and his team are led astray by someone offering a false confession. Even though the team’s method relies on differentiating between fact and fiction, it is a fiction that finally cracks the case. Lawson’s claim—Ernest asked him to plant the bomb—gives White sufficient evidence to arrest the Burkhart brothers, Bryan and Ernest, as well as their uncle. Of the three, White concludes that Ernest is the most vulnerable, given his relationship with Mollie. It is worth noting that, even if Ernest is involved in recruiting people to commit murder, he is never named as a killer. This provides some sliver of hope for White that he can be made to talk. To succeed a detective must be able to investigate not only facts but also psyches. 

The interrogation of Ernest reveals the vast power the uncle wields over his nephew. White and Smith are able to elicit remorse from Ernest over the deaths of Mollie’s family, emotions that disappear whenever they turn the conversation to William Hale. Ernest is suspended between the obligations he has to his white family, Bryan and Hale, and the Native American family he joined by marrying Mollie. Readers might struggle to understand why the latter is less important to Ernest than the former—Mollie is the mother of his children, after all—but a comment by one of Hale’s henchmen, John Ramsey, clarifies Ernest’s position. Ramsey notes that there is not much difference between 1724 and 1924 for, despite the passage of time, it remains easy for a white man to kill a Native American person. The assumptions about savagery and civilization that guided the early European colonists were still operative in Osage County. Notably, though, Ramsey depersonalizes his victims, referring to them without personal names, as he makes this assertion. With such ideas still in place, Ernest’s loyalty to his white uncle and his liability to crack are both unsurprising. 

Ernest’s decision to talk saves Mollie’s life. With the family’s headrights concentrated on her, the next step for the conspirators was her murder, an end they were pursuing with poisoned insulin administered by the Shouns. Had she died, her children would have inherited the headrights and Ernest, as their father, would have controlled the money. Given the hold Hale had over his nephew, this meant in practice that Hale would have controlled Mollie’s fortune. Even though Ernest confesses and Mollie begins to feel better as soon as she is removed from the Shouns’ care, her struggle to believe that her husband could have been involved shows how powerful emotions can be. Not only does the law need to contend with violent emotions, in this case, it also has to navigate the gentle ones as well. Across the chapter, in other words, Grann’s narrative explores the complicated ways that personal allegiance shapes behavior, in ways both large and small.